Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Dec. 4. Below are some personal choices for that honor by SI writers.
11/27/2006 05:23:00 PM
My Sportswoman: Maggie Dixon
Just six months into her job at Army, Maggie Dixon turned the Cadets around and struck everyone with her confidence and poise.
By Mark Beech
The cemetery at the United States Military Academy is a small place. Compared to the sweeping burial grounds at Arlington and Normandy, in fact, it's tiny, just 14 acres wedged into an angle between Washington Road and a bluff that overlooks the Hudson River.
The more than 5,000 men and women who rest forever at West Point are there because of their service both to the academy and to the country. It is a place for heroes, and interment there is one of the highest tributes the school can bestow. On the eastern side of this hallowed ground, near the graves of Heisman Trophy winner Glenn Davis and his old coach, Earl "Red" Blaik, lies the final resting place of an unlikely honoree: Margaret Mary Dixon.
When Maggie Dixon died suddenly on April 6 at the age of 28 from complications of heart arrhythmia, she had been the Army women's basketball coach for just six months. Just how much could she have accomplished at West Point in such a short time? She won 20 games and led the Cadets to their first appearance in the NCAA women's tournament. But Dixon's legacy goes much deeper than that. A week after her death, academy superintendent Lt. Gen. William Lennox told ABC News, "Her presence is what really struck us. ... In a house of leaders, she stood out."
Our nation's service academies consider themselves to be, first and foremost, leadership institutions, places that attempt to instruct in the ineffable art of command. But I'm not sure West Point had much to teach Dixon. She arrived there already fully formed, a positive, galvanizing figure who not only coaxed unprecedented success out of her team, but who also energized an entire community.
Dixon was a regular lunchtime visitor to the mess hall, where she would implore the corps of cadets 4,000 strong to come to games. That's a tough sell at a place where the days are strictly structured. But by the end of the season, she was receiving standing ovations during those visits. And when Army defeated Holy Cross 69-68 for the Patriot League title and a berth in the NCAAs, the corps carried her off the floor at Christl Arena.
What was her secret? It certainly had plenty to do with her positive nature. This was a woman, after all, who landed her first coaching job as an assistant at DePaul by marching into head coach Doug Bruno's office and saying, "I'm Maggie Dixon. Will you hire me?" Her ebullience drew people to her. But I think her success had much more to do with the confidence she inspired.
I met a few of the Army players last spring and they all told me the same story about Dixon. Whenever they were down, her command was always the same: "Get your heads up." They heard that over and over. It was a challenge: We've got work to do. Her players responded to it. Eventually, the whole school responded to it as well.
At a time when we ask so much of our military, Maggie Dixon's examples and accomplishments are things that are worthy of our respect. The corps of cadets were lucky to learn from her, if only for such a short time. I never knew her. I only know what she did and how those who did it with her felt. That this all happened at a place like West Point, where she taught leaders how to lead, made it easy for me to choose her as my Sportswoman of the Year.
I don't think the real hero is Maggie Dixon, I think the real heros are the cadet athletes that comprise the institution in which she coached. They are the ones who view West Point not just as a place to play a sport, but as an institution that creates leaders that will one day defend this nation's ideals and beliefs on the fields of battle. They are the ones who in addition to their sports, toil through four years of academic and military rigors to prepare themselves for the honor of leading United States soldiers in battle. And they are the ones who after they finish their time at West Point, will be deployed away from their friends and families to fight and if need be die for their country. To overstate the impact of a basketball coach who spent a year at the academy without mentioning the careers of recent cadet athletes who have graduated and then died serving their country is not only ignorant and misguided, but also offensive and insulting to the families of the deceased cadet athletes.
Adam, I don't think the writer is doing anything here other than honoring and acknowledging Maggie Dixon. I more than agree that the honorable cadet athletes, both alive and deceased,deserve the kind of praise you write about. But think about it: doesn't the writer exactly do that through his words on Maggie Dixon and by choosing her among all sportsmen and sportswomen?
As someone who has a brother currently serving in Iraq, I think the choice of Maggie Dixon is a good one. I think she stands for something bigger.The American soldier would no doubt be a great and well deserved choice for Sportsman of the Year but so to is an individual who had such a major impact - and in such a short time - on the men and women who are serving our country.
I mean no disrespect to the family of Coach Dixon. Sports at West Point has begun to overshadow the purpose of the institution and its mission. The Academy's handling of Coach Dixon's death only highlighted this issue. The flag on post was flown at half mast, the cadets conducted a "Taps Vigil" ceremony for her, and she was buried in the post cemetery. All of these honors, while meant well, would not be bestowed on any other instructor or civilian on post if they were to perish. There is no argument she touched the lives of those she coached while at the Academy. However, when an Academy instructor recently died in Iraq, he was not honored in the same manner when, in fact, he touched and interacted with many more cadets. Fianally, for the Superintendant to offer a burial plot to her family was inappropriate. With dwindling space and graduates dying weekly overseas, who will tell those families their loved one will not be buried at the Academy due to lack of space. In the end I agree with Adam and hope for a day when sports at the Academy take a place behind military preparation, leadership training, and academic commitment.
Anonymous -- you are simply wrong. Any active duty instructor who died while serving here would have the opportunity to be buried at West Point. Taps vigils are the decisions of the cadets...it is something they orchestrate. So they obviously thought enough of Maggie Dixon to bestow her with this honor. And there are many other faculty members who would receive this honor if something similar happened.
Carol Anne -- if Maggie Dixon had lived a normal lifespan, she would have garnered much more attention than she received in dying. I have no doubt that she was the next Pat Summitt.
There is no overstating Maggie Dixon's impact on this place. Male cadets storming the court (and putting the female coace on their shoulders) to celebrate a women's sporting event was a seminal moment in the advancement of women at West Point. Anyone who witnessed it knew immediately that this was a culture-altering event. It went far beyond sports.
Below is the text of an e-mail I sent my family and friends just a few weeks before Maggie died. No one would be a more fitting choice for Sportswoman of the Year.
"In case none of you had heard about this yet – has been a very cool story at West Point this year. We (Billy, Bobby, Jane and I) sat center court, two rows back for Army’s one-point victory over Holy Cross to win a first-ever Patriot League Championship. Cadets stormed the court at the end of the game and put the players and coach on their shoulders. Billy and Bobby stayed after the game to get autographs. Pretty cool to see two young boys waiting around for girls autographs.
We won’t keep Maggie Dixon for more than a couple of years. She’s a future Coach K of women’s hoops."
It is very sad that Maggie Dixon passed away at too young of an age, but she was only there for one year and if she had not passed away, would we be considering her for Sportswoman of the Year? Of course not.
The story of Maggie Dixon and her short time at West Point is not a feel good story. It is an example of what hard work and the determination of overcoming big obstacles is all about. I wish that I had the chance to meet Coach Dixon. She is a fine example of The Army, and the traditons of the United States Military Academy.
Maggie Dixon, in a very short time, exhibited true leadership, which the Military Academy seeks to instill in all their cadets. Had she lived for a longer period of time, the world might not know how she inspired a whole institution. For West Point to break tradition by honoring her not only sets an example but proves the old adage "quality beats quantity". Finally, I have a son who is an officer in the Marines serving in Iraq. He has played sports his whole life, which taught him his great leadership qualities and sportsmanship. Spotsmanship is more than being a great athelete...it is learning from a great coach to work together, respect one another and accomplish the goal you set out to do. For all of the above, I whole heartedly agree that Maggie Dixon is an excellent candidate for Sportsperson of the Year 2006. PJ
Maggie Dixon is a difficult person to discuss because of her untimely death. I agree with the earlier poster that if she hadn’t died Maggie Dixon probably wouldn’t even be in the discussion. A one point victory to make the tournament only to be beaten by 48 to Tennessee seems something short of excellence. [Speaking of Tennessee, why hasn’t Pat Summitt been nominated? She’s probably done more for increasing the popularity of women’s team sports than anyone. Even in a down year she should probably be recognized.]
Ms. Dixon was at West Point for about six months. I have to imagine that many other coaches/professors have done has much as she did for a longer period of time. And while it’s difficult for a service academy to compete on a national scale, it’s been done before – see Richie Meade and his Navy men’s lacrosse team reaching the finals in 2004.